New Jews from the Old Country
Five new books.
February 1, 2005
Feb 1, 2005
25 Min read time
Five new books.
Natasha and Other Stories
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $18 (cloth)
Scream Queens of the Dead Sea
Thunder’s Mouth Press, $22 (cloth)
The Place Will Comfort You
Scribner, $23 (cloth)
The Russian Debutante’s Handbook
Riverhead Books, $24.95 (cloth)
There Are Jews in My House
Pantheon, $17.95 (cloth)
Three hundred fifty years ago, 23 Jewish refugees heading for Holland from Recife, Brazil, were robbed at sea by a Spanish privateer. Left virtually destitute, they persuaded the ship’s captain to deposit them in nearby New Amsterdam. Upon landing, the captain filed suit against his passengers for failure to pay the balance of their passage. When an auction of their remaining possessions failed to raise enough to meet their debts, Peter Stuyvesant wrote to the Dutch West India Company in Amsterdam that he “deemed it useful to require [the Jews] in a friendly way to depart.” After urgent petitions from the refugees, Jewish investors in Holland persuaded the company to deny the governor’s request and instead grant permission for Jewish immigration and settlement in the colony.
These Brazilians, refugees from another part of the New World, paved the way for several million Jewish immigrants from the Old World, whose experience would be transformed (by the likes of Henry Roth and I.B. Singer) into one of the better-known strains of immigrant literature in America. But the landscape of immigrant fiction has evolved considerably from its roots in the early 20th-century assimilationist works of such Jewish authors as Abraham Cahan and Leo Rosten. Cahan’s ambitious hero David Levinsky sheds family, faith, and culture to become a wealthy garment manufacturer. Rosten’s Hyman Kaplan plows amiably and earnestly through the English language, allowing for many a memorable “sleeping of the tong.” Cahan and Rosten wrote of the pain and pleasure of the smelting pot that turned poor European immigrants into steely and resilient Americans. But by the 1970s, this smelting altered and unsettled the very idea of an American norm, paving the way for multiculturalism and undermining the relevance of assimilation for many new immigrants. Chang-rae Lee nicely sums up this evolution: “The old immigrant would say, ‘I’m becoming American.’ The new person is now starting out saying, ‘I am American.’” Along with multiculturalism, globalization has also taken away much of the drama and sheen of “becoming American”: “world” culture is American. For many of the newer immigrant writers from all corners, the United States has become what London and Paris were to postcolonial Anglophone and Francophone authors—a global metropole. By writing in American English, the immigrants are writing toward the center, a center that still loves to be addressed by seemingly exotic voices, even though this center itself may be giddily and incoherently plural by now.
Jews, prominent among the first wave of immigrant literature in America, have been latecomers to the second wave, which has been identified with such figures as Amy Tan, Jamaica Kincaid, Gish Jen, Chang-rae Lee, Edwidge Danticat, Junot Dìaz, Mei Ng, and Jhumpa Lahiri—names reflective of the ethnic makeup of the postwar influx into the United States. In the past four years, however, new Jews from the Old Country—who started arriving from Russia and Israel in the late 1970s—have rejoined the stream of this American tradition, in which writers leap and stretch, tuck and roll, as they exploit and discard, extol and transgress their old mother tongues and their adoptive father tongue.
The new Jewish writers have their work cut out for them. For one thing, how can we (for I am one of them) reflect the strangeness of being European immigrants when both Jewish American and American identity are already saturated with that experience? How can our new “American Jewish experience” compete with that of the Recife refugees (themselves descendants of conversos, or “New Christians,” who decided to openly practice their ancestral faith) or with the fresh canvases one finds in Junot Dìaz, Cahan or Henry Roth—much less with such native-born innovators of American Jewish neurosis as Philip Roth and Saul Bellow? The New Jews may be newcomers to the more recent “globalist” model of immigrant writing. But in the broader American Jewish context, there is almost something quaint about what we represent: a throwback. After all, Jews have been American cultural insiders for almost two generations. But as Holocaust survivors die off, it seems that it falls to Russians to remind our firmly ensconced American cousins both of the theoretical tenuousness of their ensconcement (the numbingly perennial theme of the Jew as eternal pariah, even and especially when he thinks he’s an insider) and of the prevailing value of American cultural assimilation. We are their moral and cultural roller-coaster ride, where they vicariously experience the thrills of a Jewish vulnerability they know nothing about. Somebody should have told Philip Roth that there was no need for him in his latest novel to spin fantasies about a Lindbergh presidency and pogroms in Kentucky: the Russian Jews are here, and you can have your fill of such fantasies just by gazing intently at our sallow, young faces. We remind you to feel lucky and pleasantly afraid, and you insist we ought to feel the same way.
This dynamic between American Jews and their greenhorn Russian counterparts is portrayed in a creepy and painfully funny way by David Bezmozgis in “Roman Berman, Massage Therapist,” one of the best pieces in Natasha and Other Stories—a debut collection hailed by Jeffrey Eugenides as a transplantion of Chekhov or Babel’s “clear-sighted melancholy” into North American English. Much like Bezmozgis and his own family, the fictional Bermans arrived in Toronto from Latvia in 1980. The author’s alter ego, Mark Berman, recounts how his family, hoping to attract referrals for a new massage-therapy practice, was received for a Sabbath meal by Dr. and Mrs. Kornblum, patrons of Soviet Jewry, only to find itself in competition with another Russian family:
Genady and Freda had been refuseniks . . . My mother hesitated a moment and then admitted that we had not been refuseniks. She knew some refuseniks, and we were almost refuseniks, but we were not refuseniks. Everyone agreed that this was very good, and then Freda and Genady told their story of being refuseniks. . . . Genady lifted up his shirt to show everyone the place where he had been stabbed by former coworkers.
In a wonderfully dry, understated, well-paced manner that evokes the style of the late New York Russian-language fiction writer Sergei Dovlatov, Bezmozgis captures what is, believe it or not, a type-scene of the Soviet Jewish immigrant experience. Simple detail and precise timing lets such scenes resonate, and this is one of the strengths of the five good stories (of seven) in this collection. We see this too in “Tapka,” the narrator’s account of the pleasantly insidious encroachment of English into his soft seven-year-old mouth (“shithead,” “gaylord,” “mental case”), intertwined with a story about a childless immigrant couple (Rita and Misha) and their beloved lapdog—who emerges from her month-long customs quarantine in an elegant little burst of prose: “Rita emerged from the back seat cradling animated fur. She set the fur down on the pavement, where it assumed the shape of a dog.”
“Tapka”—the story and the dog—end up badly. Partly because of Mark’s carelessness, Tapka is struck by a car; and Rita and Misha learn from the vet that an operation will cost an impossible three months’ income:
Misha sat on the floor beside his wife. . . . The doctor, after considering her options, sat down on the floor beside Rita and Misha. . . . The three of them sat in a line, swaying together like campers at a campfire. . . . I became mesmerized by the swaying. I wanted to know what would happen to Tapka; the swaying answered me.
The swaying said: Listen, shithead, Tapka will live. The doctor will perform the operation. Either money will be found or money will not be necessary.
I said to the swaying: This is very good. I love Tapka. I meant her no harm. I want to be forgiven.
The swaying replied: There is reality and then there is truth. The reality is that Tapka will live. But let’s be honest, the truth is you killed Tapka. Look at Rita; look at Misha. You see, who are you kidding? You killed Tapka and you will never be forgiven.”
“Reality” is the relentless optimism of American life, where mangled Chekhovian lapdogs are restored by kindly professionals, where English sticks to immigrant children like pollen to the legs of honeybees. But the “truth” is that, unlike the Bermans, Rita and Misha are childless, without any potential mooring in the New World; the “truth” is that the near-death of the little Lhasa apso reveals the irreversible loss of an Old World innocence.
This sort of concluding epiphany is the other great strength of some of these stories. The simple narrative structure suddenly and organically shifts in a way that makes the narrator and the reader reevaluate the simplicity of what came before. This device is most potent at the end of the title story, “Natasha.” By this point, the Bermans have climbed up and out of the apartment building and the semidetached house into a fully detached one, and Mark has developed from a sweet boy-ambassador for the family and later a Hebrew school hoodlum teased for his Russian origins, into a reasonably standard-issue Gen X–er. The 16-year-old Mark lives a “subterranean life” in the basement, smoking hash, watching TV, reading, masturbating—and eventually having prolific casual sex with Natasha, the 14-year-old daughter of his uncle’s newly arrived Russian wife. Natasha is nothing like Mark: her home life is a model of dysfunction, and she has just barely survived (in spite of her slutty and abusive mother) the cultural and economic upheavals of perestroika.
“It is the opposite which is good to us”—this epigraph from Heraclitus nicely frames the story, in which the narrator accepts Natasha’s sexual generosity as well as her role as his “connection to a larger, darker world,” without seeing the implicit demands she makes upon him. When he is unable to understand how Natasha expects him to rescue her from her mother, she seeks shelter elsewhere and becomes the concubine of Mark’s philosopher/drug-dealer Rufus. The story concludes with Mark crouching outside his house, gazing into his basement window, just as Natasha had done earlier in the story when she tried to persuade Mark to run off with her to Florida: “I had never seen it from this perspective. I saw what Natasha must have seen every time she came to the house. In the full light of summer, I looked into darkness. It was the end of my subterranean life.”
The end of Mark’s subterranean life—an acknowledgment of the vaguely wounded sterility of his successful assimilation—frames the two last stories in the collection, “Choynski” and “Minyan,” in which he pays American-style homage to his Jewish “roots.” This material is less interesting than the first four or five stories—probably because the adult narrator is too busy explaining his self-generated sentimental journeys instead of letting the reader decide whether or not to care. Bezmozgis is no Bellovian neurotic monologist: he is at his best when stuff is happening to his hero and at his worst when the hero affects a quixotic quest for authenticity.
In some ways, this is the problem for assimilated immigrant writers (and for Jewish writers in particular, since the Jewish experience in America is so well-trod): how do you let go of the ethnic material once it is something that no longer owns you (when you’re fresh off the boat) as much as you are now trying to own it (as some sort of internal heritage tourist)? In The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, Gary Shteyngart—the de facto mascot, and the best essayist, of the New Jews from the Old Country—solves this problem by making his semi-autobiographical anti-hero arrive in America at the age of 12, when the author arrived from Leningrad at the age of seven. Shteyngart does not let his hero, Vladimir Girshkin, assimilate fully, his accent (in one of the novel’s many comic tics) thickening whenever he gets nervous.
Shteyngart uses Girshkin to exaggerate his own public persona into an irresistibly appealing minstrel character: the hapless “beta-immigrant,” a partially assimilated creature without the classic “alpha-immigrant” drive of his parents, like an immigrant Woody Allen or Tommy Wilhelm. But unlike Woody or Tommy—schlemiels with whom we can identify though we know their tsoris is their fault—Vladimir’s “problems” are too hysterical, too willfully and ridiculously constructed, for us to empathize. Unless you happen to have been sexually assaulted and chased out of the country by a Catalan druglord. (Why Catalan? Who knows?) Another pomo-baroque routine actually repeats itself: there are two identical car chase scenes with Vladimir throwing wads of cash at his irate cabdriver. The problem with Shteyngart’s novel—which is fun to read out loud, but fails to resonate in the silence of contemplation—is that it is like a verbal description of Harpo Marx’s physical comedy. I suspect the author may be anxiously aware of this, which is why the book includes a photo of him sitting on a Petersburg curb, holding a bear cub by the leash—as though he were afraid to stop the minstrel show.
The Russian Debutante’s Handbook makes most sense as a satirical novel of the Clinton boom years, somewhat like Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, and the rush to the post-Soviet Wild East was an indispensable feature of those years. Just as Franzen’s Chip flees the wreck of his life to hatch schemes in Lithuania, Vladimir runs off to do the same in Prava—a Praguish outpost of gangster capitalism and bohemian escapism. Even more uncannily, Chip and Vladimir turn out the same way by the end of their respective novels: chastened, sobered, married to practical wives in the Midwest, offspring on the brain.
I don’t mean to say Shteyngart doesn’t make interesting observations about things post-Soviet and Russian-Jewish. He does, and the best moments in the novel resemble his first-rate essays in The New Yorker and The New York Times, which are witty, soulful, and memorable. The Russian Debutante’s Handbook—loud, energetic, and messy—was important precisely as the debut book of its subgenre. But of the new wavelet of Russian Jewish fiction in English, I venture there is one voice that—perhaps moreso than Shteyngart or Bezmozgis—will evolve and command attention for years to come: Lara Vapnyar, the author of a slim but potent volume of stories, There Are Jews in My House. Unlike Shteyngart and Bezmozgis, Vapnyar came to New York from Moscow in 1994 at the age of 23 with very little English. According to interviews, Vapnyar’s acquisition of a new language—from television, Jane Austen, and Soviet textbooks—was midwife to her nascent literary sensibility.
Asked by one interviewer about how it feels to write in foreign language, Vapnyar responds: “It makes me scared, because I don’t hear my stories. I don’t know how they sound. On the other hand, I am not as sensitive to my imperfections as I would be if I wrote in Russian.” This attitude, at once exposed and cautious, open and liberated, characterizes her prose. In “A Question for Vera,” the third-person narrator describes—in funny, poignant, and creepily naturalistic detail—a Soviet kindergarten from the perspective of Katya, a little Jewish girl. The mundane descriptions of plates that must be picked clean, of “broken cars and odd items of doll clothing” at the bottom of the toy bin, give way to Katya’s bizarre encounter with Ira Baranova, a rosy-cheeked Russian girl and a “recognized authority on life.” Ira takes the curious and bewildered Katya into the washroom to inform her that she is a “Jewess”:
“Your eyes are too big. It’s not normal.” Katya turned to look at Ira’s eyes. She was right; Katya’s eyes were twice as big as Ira’s. Katya immediately hated them. “Now look at your nose.” Katya looked but didn’t see anything alarming . . . “You see, it’s pointed down, not up.” That was true. Katya desperately tried to lift her chin up, but the tip of her nose still looked down . . . Katya knew that her friend Aziza was Uzbek. Was Aziza “normal”? Being Uzbek wasn’t bad . . . On Aziza’s birthday, they ate rice with their hands . . . Being Uzbek was fun. If Katya had to be something “not normal,” why couldn’t she be an “Uzbekess”? “Hmm,” Ira said, “your ears don’t look Jewish.” Katya sighed with relief and smiled gratefully at her dear perfect ears. “But the ears are not important,” Ira continued. “You are a Jewess all the same.” Katya’s lips quivered—she desperately wanted to cry. “Sorry,” said Ira, “I though you should know.”
This hilarious and chillingly naïve portrait of racial thinking culminates, as the kindergarten empties, in a distraught Katya turning against Vera, the one-eyed doll:
“Look at your eyes! Sorry, look at your eye. Look how big and round it is. Do you think this is normal? . . . And your ears! . . . You have the most Jewish ears I’ve ever seen, Vera!” Vera’s expression didn’t change. She looked just as calm as she had before. Katya stared at her, puzzled. “Don’t you care?” . . . What if Vera, the doll, was right that there wasn’t anything bad or special about being Jewish? Katya looked around. There was nobody to answer that question. Nobody at all.
Tolstoy sometimes used the perspective of horses and children to achieve what the Russian formalist critic Victor Shklovsky would call ostranenie (estrangement or defamiliarization), but I doubt Tolstoy or anyone else has ever used a doll’s eye to such subtle effect. There is something terrifying yet oddly comforting about Vera’s complacency and about the impossibility of affirming this complacency. Though one reviewer (Sam Munson in Commentary) objects to this and the title story for being too “issue-oriented” in their attempt to address Russian anti-Semitism, Vapnyar succeeds in using this issue, instead of being used by it (as Bezmozgis is occasionally used by his Jewish nostalgia). The ending of “A Question for Vera” is like a Zen koan about Jewishness—a smooth, formal unity that encompasses all contradictions and paradoxes.
Interestingly, this ending echoes the more ominous conclusion of the title story, in which the Russian Galina toys with betraying her Jewish best friend Raya and her daughter to the Germans. She doesn’t; but the story ends with a remorseful Galina rushing home to find Raya and her little girl already gone, fled, having left behind a doll, “barely visible in the dark.” The doll reminds Galina of a “dead child.” “A Question for Vera” seems to resurrect this “Jewish” doll not only as a haunting reproach, but also as a figure of the reliable imperturbability of inanimate objects.
There are no bad stories in Vapnyar’s collection. But “Mistress” is arguably the best, and it forms the “open and liberated” American counterpoint to the two “exposed and cautious” Jewish stories above. In this Brooklyn tale, Misha’s grandfather—made moribund by immigration, retirement, and an overbearing wife—rediscovers himself in the outside world (and finds a platonic “mistress”) after taking an English class: “You know what, my class won’t be over on June fifteenth. I mean it will, but I’ll find another class, then another. Misha, there are a lot of free English programs in Brooklyn. You have no idea how many!” In lesser hands, the hopeful truth of this simple epiphany would seem sentimental. But Vapnyar does not hide the psychic cruelty of immigration—Misha’s mother claims she came to America for his sake, just as her mother claims she came to America for her daughter’s, in the absurd chain of guilt that turns family into strangers in a strange land. Rather, Vapnyar merely reminds us of the dizzy possibilities in fresh words and tongues.
In their different ways, Vapnyar, Shteyngart and Bezmozgis offer a gloss on Philip Roth’s argument in The Counterlife and elsewhere (now perversely refuted in his counter-historical The Plot Against America), that Jews can only take root in America, where shallow roots have become the norm. My family lived in the Russian empire and the Soviet Union for over 300 years. It didn’t take. Mouton Rothschild can produce wonderful French wine for another 200 years—the name will still evoke an alien graft. The Levitical curse about “the land vomiting you up” (sin or no) never quite goes away, until, it seems, you get to Levittown. And so far, Israel—a place contested, self-invented, at once dogmatic and self-doubtful about its rootedness—is not an obvious solution.
Israel is the Old Country, too, in the sense that the Jewish state has become landlocked in historical suffering much like Russia. Herzl’s dream of an Alteneuland has been realized, though the alte is not the alte he had in mind, and neither is the neu. Israel’s newness has become a pretext for anti-Zionism (which views all Israelis as “settlers”), and its oldness taken for an emblem of “eternal” religious conflict (a convenient way for Europeans to wash their hands of their history of anti-Judaism and colonialism, which created the “eternal” Israeli–Arab conflict of the past century). This sort of old–new instability is one reason for the burgeoning Israeli diaspora in the United States—by some estimates upwards of 500,000 yordim, or “descenders” (as opposed to olim, “ascenders” to Israel). There is in fact no universally accepted figure for the number of Israelis living abroad, precisely because of the tricky ideological connotations of any Jew “descending” from the land of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But it is almost impossible to walk more than a few blocks in Manhattan without hearing Spanish, Russian, French (I am still trying to figure out why half of Paris has moved to New York), and Hebrew. In another odd quirk of recent immigration, a sizable portion of New York yordim are filmmakers or film students. We should start seeing more fiction writers; but so far I’ve found two Israeli-American authors: Naama Goldstein and Gilad Elbom.
Goldstein is both an olah and a yordah. Born in Boston to an Orthodox Zionist family, she was raised in Israel between the ages of three and 17, at which point she returned to New England. This double uprooting and re-rooting is reflected in the table of contents of her book, The Place Will Comfort You—which is divided into “Part 1: Olim (Ascending)” and “Part 2: veYordim (and Descending)” and which prompts the unsettling style and language of the book, her first collection of stories. In fact, Goldstein is the only writer of the group reviewed here who seems to be interested in linguistic experimentation. At times, the syntax and idioms evoke the directness of Biblical Hebrew and the pugnaciousness of Modern Hebrew, as well as the author’s own idiosyncrasies—and the results are mixed. For example, in “The Conduct for Consoling,” we hear the following conversation between two Israeli schoolgirls, one an American immigrant, the other native-born:
She says, “Americans are fat.”
I thought she liked Americans. I thought she loved our cakes.
She says, “On you it looks nice. You’re full-figured but it’s how you’re meant to be. You’re an exception, plus you have some color in your skin, and where’s your accent full of spit? Don’t have one, why? Because you count like you’re from here. Let’s go.”
This hurts my feelings. Then it fixes them a little, then it makes me angry, proud, and grateful, till I’m annoyed. One thing I know for sure is that I have a complicated answer to get out: “Like you don’t have a history of passage?”
There is a blunt emotional muscularity to the prose that evokes Grace Paley and Tillie Olsen: for instance, the concise, poetic vividness of “accent full of spit.” But then it’s muddled by plain weirdness: “a complicated answer to get out” sounds like an unnecessarily awkward version of something straightforward; and this becomes even more jarring when coupled with “a history of passage”—language more appropriate for an academic article than for a conversation between schoolgirls.
Goldstein’s depictions of immigration, cultural displacement and longing, however, come across searingly despite this stylistic unevenness. In “Anatevka Tender,” an American-born mother has returned to Maryland with her sons to spare her younger son the experience of the older as a soldier in Lebanon. The carpeting of their temporary new apartment makes her skin crawl; she misses Israel:
She hated to have given up her tiles, hard but ever cooling to the feet, back home. And what was it, only three days away, if not still her home. . . . They had stuck to local craftwork, the minimal touch or the marvel of intricacy, religious themes as well as secular, befitting the vision: the grandest old hopes alive in contemporary garb, Modern Zionist Orthodoxy. Here the days would move by the map of Law while the heart beat for Zion, and all the time the mind would remain immersed in the developing world, which again was Zion, rising around them in fresh asphalt, new cement foundations and young trees . . . This time there would be no subsidy. No establishment supported the descent, which was instituted on what principles? One, mercy on her sons. And the practice? A very big move. And after that?
The mother undergoes the agony of abandoning the all-consuming vision of Zion that had driven her and other American olim to trade soft American carpets for hard Israeli tiles. But her act of mercy only makes her more aware of her original arrogance: “What right had she, twelve years ago, to decide that Yitz would be a boy of Israel? This was what the sacrificial ram was asking now, having jumped out of the fire into her living room, eyelids burnt off, very angry.” While the younger son, Eytan, has been spared by the return to America, it’s too late for Yitz, the teenage Israel Defense Forces veteran who will stand out as a living rebuke in bucolic Maryland more than he did in Herzliya.
In “The Worker Rests under the Hero Tree,” the last story in the collection, two yordim who were neighbors in Israel long ago catch up in a Cape Cod bar. Here the volatile ascending–descending pattern from “Anatevka Tender” has been absorbed and settled in the heroine Adi, who explains to her fellow descender that her family “‘thought we were ascenders for life but were only for a time. . . . Am I supposed to be able to explain it? In that case all right. We were never sufficiently absorbed. We left, and now we’re here and not there.’ She flipped her palm to let the subject go like a balloon.” Here and not there. It didn’t take. What else is there to explain about immigration? Let go of the balloon.
Actually, Gilad Elbom’s Scream Queens of the Dead Sea is not an immigrant narrative. Elbom, a young Israeli-American, came to the United States for graduate studies (first in LA and now in North Dakota) after studying English and Arabic in Israel. On the first page of the book, Elbom’s scribbling meta-fictional hero Gilad asks the obvious question: “Why am I writing in English when I have this native language good enough for God? My mother says I’m being ungrateful. She says that I have a responsibility . . . to our history. I also have a degree in comparative literature and linguistics, but she says that it means nothing.” Gilad doesn’t really answer the question here; but one can guess that he chooses English precisely because it is not the language of God, evading the creative perils and potential faced by Modern Hebrew authors, who court blasphemy with each square letter. This becomes even more understandable given that Elbom’s novel is a brisk, deadpan (and, in a way, intentionally deadening) collage of scenes from the mental hospital where Gilad works (and where Elbom himself worked) as an assistant nurse; heavy-metal reveries; hardcore sex with the wife of a man in coma; linguistic analysis; absurd encounters with IDF bureaucracy; and an even more absurd encounter with a Palestinian in the casino town of Jericho.
The novel reads like a version of Catch-22 written by Chuck Palahniuk—enjoyable, a bit cobbled, and seemingly pointless. Pointless, that is, until the wackiness builds into an anxious and rather moving conclusion, in which Gilad breaks his meta-fictional cycle and inexplicably stands on top of his desk at the mental hospital and shouts at the bewildered patients:
“Out. Don’t you want out? I’ll open the door and let you all out. . . .”
“We don’t want to escape.”
“Of course you don’t!” I shout at them. “Because you’re crazy!”
“No,” says Abe Goldmil. “Because we’ve already escaped.”
“And now it’s your turn,” says Hadassah Benedict.
“But I am escaping!”
“Where are you escaping to?”
But the patients note that he’ll be fired for standing on the desk, to which Gilad objects, “‘The book is not over yet . . . It’s in English!’” Here, finally, is the answer to the question of Elbom’s choice of language: it is an escape from “native” realities, even though, as another mental patient notes, “It’s fiction. . . . It’s a production of an escape.” And that’s the grand bargain of immigrant fiction in general: we get escape and acceptance, and you get to savor all of the vicarious ambivalence of our “production.”
Immigrants themselves are attached to their rather nonsensical ambivalence, almost like I.B. Singer’s psychotic survivor Masha in Enemies, who asks, “What kind of world is this without Nazis? A backward country, this America.” I grew up with other assimilated immigrants (from Cuba, Israel, Russia) in Miami Beach; and we had a term of hyphenated contempt for people (some of them friends) who seemed too narrowly native: “Stupid-Americans”—related to but not the same as the stupid American who shouts “Cheeseburger!” at a Paris bistro, and in some ways more similar to “white-bread” (which did not exist in Miami Beach). “Stupid-American” reflected an immigrant’s arrogance about his microwaving, Twinkie-eating, shag-carpeted, unthinkingly suburban peers, native-born neighbors who supposedly lacked texture, complexity, pathos, and authenticity. “What kind of backward country is this without Brezhnev, Arafat, Castro?” At the same time, we envied the anxiety-free innocence of these Stupid-Americans; we would even miss it when we traveled—at the end of my first trip back to Russia in 1989 (a wonderfully rich and intensely abrasive experience), I wanted to hug the clueless and smiling American tourist who asked me a question at the airport.
But I wonder if that huggable American tourist is a dying breed. That same tourist is now more self-conscious of his native naivete. And perhaps some 21st-century Americans might look to this new wave of immigrant fiction as they try to understand a country that can be and has been attacked, as they struggle to see through the media-saturated unreality of terror and war and through the generic spasms of grief, toward a vision of the New World that has at last become part of the Old.
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February 01, 2005
25 Min read time